Worlds Apart


It was my first night with the family and Rubin s last. We had just finished dinner and the eight of us were sitting around a coffee table in the living room. Darkness had descended outside almost three hours ago and Mama had already closed the wooden shutters and bolted the door. Rubin was telling us about his life at home. In America it was mid-morning: his parents were at work, his little brother at school. People were drinking coffee and driving their cars and walking their dogs. As he talked, our Tanzanian translator, Nipa, kept up with a steady stream of Swahili.

After several minutes Mama raised her hand to stop him and turned to Nipa, who translated for us: Mama wants to know, how can it be daylight in America when it is dark in Tanzania?

Rubin picked up the football at his feet. He explained that the world was round and that Tanzania and the USA were on opposite side of the sphere. The globe was spinning around the sun, like this football was around the kerosene lamp and that s why, if the USA was in sunshine, Tanzania was sleeping.

I drank in the scene around me. Seven faces watched Rubin, illuminated by the warm light of the kerosene lamp. Although bare wires poked through the cracked red walls and dusty light bulbs hung from the ceiling, there was no electricity here. The plastic chairs we sat on were draped in Mama s colourful Kangas. Hanging on the wall was a tea-towel with a picture of a Maasai woman and the year 1986 boldly printed upon it. Next to it hung a painted picture of Jesus holding a lamb. The brittle canvas must have been dropped at some point because half of Jesus face was had broken off and only a dark hole remained. We were ten minutes walk from the nearest water pump and twenty
kilometres from the nearest internet caf . I was almost certain there was a chicken under my seat.

And here was Rubin, a plucky twenty-year old American volunteer, in Africa for the first time and thousands of miles from home, teaching someone almost twice his age something he learnt as a small child.

Mama is an imposing woman. She has raised four children and works a sixteen hour day to care for her family. She s proud she went to school and doesn t suffer fools lightly. She knows how to cook for eight on an open fire and can carry fifteen litres of water on her head. When Rubin finishes she takes his hand and thanks him. She says that no one had told her that before.

We sat together for an hour more, cocooned against the world by the mud walls and tin roof, safe in the house that Mama built. At that time I really felt how different this family s world was from mine and how much we could learn from one another. That feeling will stay with me forever.

K Alexander

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